Sky F1’s Martin Brundle reviews an extraordinarily dramatic Sao Paulo GP weekend as Lewis Hamilton bounces back to clinch a crucial win; Brundle has his say on the penalties, the title race, and the new on-board footage of Max Verstappen vs Hamilton
Last Updated: 16/11/21 1:34pm
The 2021 Brazilian Grand Prix was pretty much all about Lewis Hamilton, who was unwittingly in a game of extreme F1 ‘snakes and ladders’.
The intel leading up to the event suggested that Mercedes would introduce a further internal combustion engine into his pool, giving him two motors available for the remaining four races, and that proved to be accurate, along with a five-place grid penalty in Brazil.
With effectively three new circuits to close out the season, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi expecting high top speeds, and given the power degradation with mileage which Merc have been suffering this season, it made sense. Climbing the long hill up to turn one in Interlagos followed by the downhill run to turn four has always been one of the easier overtaking combinations in F1 over the decades.
Three to go: How it stands in the title chases
|1) Max Verstappen||332.5|
|2) Lewis Hamilton||318.5|
|2) Red Bull||510.5|
Honda’s power advantage at altitude circuits – it’s approaching 800 metres in Interlagos – has been diminished to an extent this season with some turbocharger changes by Mercedes, but a fresh motor and whatever secret Mercedes have found with their reduced drag and high maximum speeds have made Hamilton pretty much unbeatable. Despite everything.
Hamilton strikes first – but qualifying drama ensues
As it was the third and final 2021 ‘Sprint’ event, the opening one-hour practice on Friday morning was all the drivers had to prepare for qualifying. Just as at Silverstone and Monza, it was dry and relatively uninterrupted. One day, we will have a washed-out practice leading directly into qualifying which will challenge the teams.
On this occasion, initially the Red Bull looked very settled and fast, while Lewis was politely but firmly asking his team for the front of his car to be calmed down on the vertical movement and generally improved. In the closing stages, he quickly became the pace setter, and it wouldn’t really change from thereon.
Lewis comfortably took top spot for the Sprint until he was disqualified for a rear wing measurement outside the rules. That wing remained confiscated for the rest of the weekend until the end of any appeal time allowance as secured evidence, and so it was difficult to know exactly why or how it came to transgress the template measurements.
In Formula One, you can’t have any grey areas or fudges on technical regulations, otherwise you get creep on standards and issues. Aston Martin found this out the hard way when missing just a little sample fuel at the end of the Hungarian GP – they were simply eliminated from the results. And the excuse that any transgression didn’t affect on-track performance simply cuts no ice whatsoever under the regulations.
Red Bull are convinced Mercedes are up to something with their rear wing, and Mercedes are indignantly wholly denying this. The FIA must have inspected Lewis’s captive rear Merc wing to a high degree. It’s getting down to the championship wire now with it all to play for, and it’s becoming rather feisty and a little angry between the two teams and contending drivers on and off the track. And the FIA are referees in the middle catching the occasional punch.
Sprint comeback a sign of things to come
Hamilton would start from the very back in 20th. He dawdled on the formation lap and arrived on the grid with nicely warm tyres and dispatched four cars before the first corner. Could he possibly make it well inside the top 10 in just 24 laps?
He drove beautifully to fifth place, comfortably in sight of the third-place Ferrari of Carlos Sainz and the fourth-place Red Bull of Sergio Perez. A majestic drive of speed and racecraft.
Way out front though, Valtteri Bottas was claiming another Sprint victory and so the main race pole position, by beating Verstappen to the first corner and eking out his soft tyres through the remainder of the Sprint.
Mercedes should have fired him every mid-season and then rehired him over the winter – he’s been largely very impressive since he lost his drive to George Russell for 2022.
Verstappen increased his championship lead by two points for second place in the Sprint, but it all looked a bit ominous for race day, even though Lewis’s fresh motor penalties would see him drop a further five places to 10th for the main race grid.
A chaotic race start amid rising tensions
The paddock chat was then very much ‘with three times more fuel for 71 laps, much higher track temperatures, and starting among faster traffic, it would be nowhere near as easy for Lewis on Sunday’. And that all turned out to be nonsense.
On the grid, Merc boss Toto Wolff was visibly angry that among the many changes throughout the grid under the parc ferme rules (including both Mercedes), Red Bull had changed rear wing elements on Verstappen’s car. So why weren’t Mercedes allowed to address whatever had gone wrong on Hamilton’s rear wing during qualifying and causing his disqualification, he reasoned? A fair question, the main answer being that those replaced parts were approved changes under FIA inspection and control and had not failed a legality check.
Furthermore, he wondered ‘and how about the glue and tape which had been applied to the Red Bull rear wings a week earlier in Mexico qualifying, when they were managing a critical issue, only for it to be taken off for the race’? Harder to argue against.
This all served to motivate Hamilton even more as he immediately surged to sixth and was soon quickly allowed past by his team-mate Bottas into third place behind only the two Red Bulls, who in turn had both mugged Bottas by turn four of the race. Game on.
Back in the pack, Lando Norris had tagged his slow-starting former team-mate Sainz’s Ferrari front wheel as he passed him away from the grid, collecting an instant puncture along the way, although he would still salvage a fine point in 10th.
Yuki Tsunoda launched a rather wild attack on Lance Stroll to distribute lots of carbon fibre in the Senna S, bringing out the safety car. This played nicely into Hamilton’s hands to put him on the gearbox of Perez.
Red Bull had obviously envisaged this and they waited almost until the finish line before launching into the restart, so as not to give Hamilton any kind of slipstream for his already fast car.
A little later, more carbon confetti came from Mick Schumacher’s Haas, which had made contact with Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo to bring out the virtual safety car this time, and this played nicely into Bottas’s hands to ease him past Perez who, despite a great fightback, had been dispatched by the flying Hamilton.
Lewis vs Max takes centre stage – with more controversy
In the beginning, it appeared that Verstappen could steal a third of a second over Hamilton every pass through the tortuous middle sector to help build a buffer on the pit straight from the Merc missile. But Hamilton was relentless and on lap 48, Verstappen had to weave and defend, placing Hamilton on the outside but racing line into turn four. Max will say they both braked late, him from the dirty part of the track, and both ran wide. I’m sure that Max would also say that when he realised Lewis had gone into the run-off area, he straightened his car to do the same and accelerate away.
On viewing the onboard footage, it confirms that Max braked very late and was slow and limited with his turn-in point, but at no point did he open the steering wheel towards Lewis. It was totally on the limit and could have easily gone either way with the stewards. It warranted a driving-standards warning black and white flag at least.
Mercedes may still ask for a stewards’ review, but those claims rarely get a change of decision. In any event, Red Bull will say they cruised at the end and so any five-second penalty putting them behind Bottas would be unfair, Max would have just driven faster, to which Mercedes will say so would have Valtteri.
Hamilton remained very calm about the incident and the subsequent radio call to tell him no further action from the stewards. I strongly suspect his determination to pass Max soared at that point.
That pass would happen on lap 59 of the 71. Along the pit straight, Max had to go low into turn one to defend the rapid Hamilton, which put him out of sync for the turns 1/2/3 combo. Lewis swung high and picked up the perfect line, which would see him power past using DRS down to turn four. Barring any reliability issues, the victory was his. Red Bull had few answers in front of Hamilton’s Mercedes on the day, and had no answers when behind him.
Hamilton’s win sets up super title showdown
Lewis managed to pick up a financial fine on the slowing down lap while undoing his seatbelts to collect a Brazilian flag in deference to his hero Ayrton Senna. This was against the rules and the FIA don’t want it to set a precedent for junior drivers coming through the ranks which is a fair point.
It’s uncomfortable for F1 to be spoilsports, especially on a weekend when Valentino Rossi was delivering his exuberant motorcycle racing farewell, but it’s easy to be trundling along at 80mph or more when heading for the pits in these cars and seatbelts fastened is mandatory.
The Brazilian crowd, with no driver of their own on the grid (racing a car anyway), really took to Lewis again, knowing his admiration and inspiration for Senna. Initially, I found it a bit odd that he wasn’t wrapped in a Union Jack, but he was re-enacting an iconic moment, and with a drive which Ayrton would have been very impressed with.
Next up is a track in Qatar, which Valentino Rossi will know infinitely better than any F1 driver, and it may well suit his bike more than our F1 cars. With Verstappen’s championship lead down to 14 points, after Checo Perez saved a point grabbing fastest lap off Lewis on the final tour, the championship will run until at least Saudi Arabia now.
This story has plenty more to run, and surely on that form, it’s worth Merc considering a new internal combustion engine for the final big showdown. A five-place grid drop could be well worth it, given Lewis passed all the other 19 cars on the grid, 16 of them at least twice.